Democratic leaders around the world are condemning the military ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya on Sunday and are calling for his return. While some of Mr. Zelaya's critics argue that the coup was justified by the Honduran leader's illegal actions, at least one prominent U.S. expert who recently visited the Central American nation says the coup was a mistake.
In March and April, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones visited Honduras under a U.S. State Department grant, meeting with President Zelaya, leaders of Congress, the military and the news media. Since returning to Houston, he has kept an eye on developments in that Central American country. He is familiar with actions taken by President Zelaya to set up a national referendum outside of the nation's electoral system, something that the Honduran Supreme Court ruled was unconstitutional.
But Jones says the leaders of the coup not only violated democratic principles, but they also made a tactical error.
"They took someone who had very weak democratic credentials, but now are allowing him to rally support among democratic leaders who do not want to set the precedent in the region of supporting a coup - even if it does have some legitimacy," said Mark Jones. "They would have been much better off allowing him to hold the referendum, but boycotting it and then pursuing impeachment proceedings."
Jones says the coup leaders probably took action to prevent the president from using results from the non-official national referendum to undermine or cancel national elections scheduled for November.
Some opposition leaders accused Mr. Zelaya of plotting to extend his term in office beyond January of next year when a new president is to be sworn in. Mr. Zelaya denied this, but went ahead with his plans for the referendum, which was to have been held on Sunday.
Analyst Mark Jones says President Zelaya is not popular even within his own party, but he has had backing from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez - a leftist leader who has been a frequent critic of the United States and who has backed many other left-leaning political leaders in Latin America.
But the action taken against Mr. Zelaya harkens back to a dark period in the region's history, when military coups were common. Jones says that today, coups are not seen as acceptable under any circumstance and that international pressure likely will prevail.
"There seems to be relatively unified support in Honduras, at least among most of the political parties as well as the Supreme Court and the military, against Zelaya," he said. "At the same time, the strong international opposition, I think, is not going to allow them any other route - other than to allow Zelaya to come back. So they are probably going to have to broker some kind of deal to allow him to come back and then immediately launch impeachment proceedings."
Working out such a deal might prove difficult, given the opposition to Mr. Zelaya and his defiant condemnation of the people who engineered the coup. Speaking from exile in Costa Rica, he referred to them as "a very voracious elite." He accused them of trying to keep Honduras isolated in extreme poverty. The Central American nation of about seven million people is one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere.
Mark Jones says that when Mr. Zelaya took office 3.5 years ago, he was seen as a center-right politician, but that he has moved more to the left since then. While he does have strong backing from leftist groups, Jones says the ousted Honduran president is not a leader who draws large support from the population as a whole. Jones notes that protests against the coup have drawn small numbers, with the masses sitting on the sidelines, at least for now.
The Rice University professor says President Zelaya might be able to survive an impeachment trial, but that he would be suspended from office during the proceedings, which would likely last beyond the November 29 elections.